Shares of Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA) have gained a heart-stopping 775% over the last five years, starting at the bottom of a difficult turnaround trough. Every investor would love to see returns like these in their own portfolio, but it isn't easy to separate the risk-laden gambles from the high-growth opportunities with lasting appeal.
So we asked a panel of three veteran Motley Fool contributors for their best investment ideas in the Electronic Arts mold. They came up with Bed Bath & Beyond (NASDAQ:BBBY), Weibo (NASDAQ:WB), and AU Optronics (NYSE:AUO). Read on to see how this cream rose to the top.
Every turnaround must start with a crash
Anders Bylund (AU Optronics): I don't know how to match EA's fantastic returns without taking on a fair amount of risk. Those are the stakes when you're looking for extreme growth potential -- betting on the wrong horse could get expensive in a hurry.
With that caveat in mind, I'm going for Taiwanese LCD panel builder AU Optronics.
The company has seen its trailing sales slipping 35% lower in just three years while annual free cash flows evaporated from nearly $2 billion to just above breakeven. Share prices followed suit, and you can buy AU Optronics stock today for less than five times trailing earnings and 0.6 times the company's book value. In other words, current share prices imply that investors would be much better off if AU Optronics simply stopped doing business, sold off all its assets, and returned that cash directly to shareholders.
I don't think that's even close to correct, especially when you consider AU Optronics' solid bottom-line earnings and healthy balance sheet. LCD screens may not be the hottest idea in the display market anymore, but the company is moving forward with quantum-dot research and an emerging OLED screen business. AU Optronics also collected 7.4% of its 2016 revenue from its solar-power products.
Long story short, I like AU Optronics' chances of bouncing back from today's incredibly depressed valuation. The stock could double on little more than a convincing long-term business plan. That would be similar to EA's turnaround story, which also started with overly depressed valuations and a weakened but still solid fundamental business.
I could be wrong, so don't back up the truck on this recommendation. But AU Optronics could certainly be worth a small, speculative investment at today's bargain-bin prices.
Double or nothing
Jordan Wathen (Bed Bath & Beyond): This bombed-out retail stock could end up delivering stellar returns if it proves to be one of retail's survivors.
Retail is in the midst of a secular shift from offline to online sales, but Bed Bath & Beyond has some positive tailwinds in the form of increased household formation and a robust housing market. Online sales have grown at about 20% per year for several years running, juiced by promotions and lower-margin sales that have recently weighed on the home goods retailer's profitability.
The good news is that the company throws off lots of cash -- free cash flow tallied to $668 million last year against a current market cap of about $5 billion. The bad news is that this free cash flow is mostly plowed back into share repurchases. The company bought back about $547 million of stock last year at prices higher than where shares trade today. With a $1.7 billion repurchase authorization, and a history of cannibalizing its share count, it seems likely that repurchases will remain its primary way to return cash to shareholders.
If Bed Bath & Beyond proves to be a survivor in the home goods and decor retailing segment, shareholders should be richly rewarded as it buys back its own stock at a depressed, single-digit multiple of free cash flow.
This is a binary investment -- it's an all-or-nothing play. Shareholders could see a double or triple, or nothing at all. It's not for the faint of heart, but when you set your return target as high as we have with Electronic Arts, you have to be willing to shop the bargain bin, where the offerings are likely to be beaten-up.
A leading Chinese social media platform
Keith Noonan (Weibo): Shares of Chinese microblogging platform Weibo have already tripled over the last year, but the incredible rate at which the platform is growing suggests its best days might still be ahead. Like Twitter, the social media site revolves around sending short messages and pictures, and is also growing as a video platform. It's been delivering stellar top- and bottom-line results, and looks to be in much-better shape than its American counterpart.
Per its most recent quarterly report, Weibo counted 340 million monthly active users -- an increase of 30% year over year. The company has also been driving increased engagement and monetization from its user base, with second-quarter revenue increasing 67% over the prior-year period, and net income up 561%. With increasing demand for its advertising services and partnerships with leading Chinese web giants Alibaba and Sina, the company looks primed to continue delivering stellar sales and earnings growth.
Weibo has become ingrained in Chinese pop culture and stands as the most popular open forum for the country's internet users to discuss their favorite celebrities, media content, and hobbies. Data from the state-run China Internet Information Network Center indicates that roughly 730 million people in the country currently connect to the web, suggesting that roughly 47% of the country's internet users are also on Weibo's platform. That's stellar engagement and points to the company benefiting from, and being able to continue to leverage, a significant network effect -- particularly as internet use keeps growing in China.